For millennials like Shannon Whitmore, 29, natural family planning does not involve charting on paper and penciling in fertility data. Whitmore and her husband are assessing her fertility using her smartphone, which has an app that reads hormonal data interpreted by her OvaCue fertility monitor.
While Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, explaining the Church’s teaching on the regulation of birth and responsible parenthood, detailed the immorality of artificial contraception and predicted that its widespread use would lead to harm to marriage and family life, it has turned prophetic in another way. Natural family planning methods are becoming more diverse and advanced, more high-tech and affordable, thanks to both Pope Paul VI’s teaching and the rise of smartphones, apps and fertility-monitoring devices.
“For us, it made a huge difference,” said Whitmore. She and her husband both have advanced degrees in Catholic theology and began their family right away.
Shannon’s health post-partum meant they needed space between their daughter, now 3 years old, and their next child, due in August. The first method the Whitmores learned in marriage formation — the Creighton Method — worked for other couples, but when it came time to use it, they discovered their signs were all over the place. Thankfully, she said, they had a Creighton instructor who knew about other natural family planning (NFP) methods and encouraged them to explore those. “The most challenging thing was finding a method that really worked for us — both for me as a woman and for us as a couple,” she said.
After research, they opted to learn an NFP method using OvaCue, a fertility monitor that predicts estrogen levels, in order to help them postpone (and later achieve) pregnancy.
The readings are once a day — just 10 seconds — with the results synced to her phone’s app. “We thought: Could it really be that easy? But it works the way it was supposed to,” Whitmore said.
Natural family planning methods, which involve predicting ovulation, measuring a woman’s cycles and periodically avoiding sexual intimacy, have long been associated with the Catholic Church, thanks to Paul VI’s refusal to sanction artificial birth control in Humanae Vitae and his affirmation of Church teaching that periodic abstinence for serious reasons is the only licit means for avoiding pregnancy.
More millennials, conscious of the risks to their health from artificial contraception, are turning to Church-approved natural family planning to postpone or achieve pregnancy.
A Diversity of Methods
Mikayla Dalton, a Boston-based NFP instructor who teaches the Boston Cross Check method, told the Register that NFP is now as low-tech or high-tech as couples require. A variety of NFP methods exist today. Couples can now learn from instructors giving them one-on-one attention over Skype or go to a class. NFP methods range from practically free to a few hundred dollars per year.
Each method varies in statistical effectiveness, but in practice, different methods work for different couples, depending on their bodily health and lifestyle needs.
Dalton said it is not uncommon for couples to resort to other methods, particularly after the birth of a child, because the previous method no longer works for their circumstances.
“For people trying to conceive, there are a lot of exciting new developments,” Dalton said, pointing to a broad range of devices, including “wearable tech” and apps with their own algorithms.
Wider Potential for Adoption
New fertility-monitoring devices and apps have arrived on the scene, and more are coming, but delaying pregnancy with them involves developing protocols for off-label use. Both monitors and apps, Dalton said, need more research from universities that can devote the personnel and financial resources to demonstrate their effectiveness in spacing births.
The Marquette Method, which Dalton teaches, was developed by Marquette University researchers using the ClearBlue Easy Fertility Monitor, which detects ovulation based on measuring hormones with urine-based test sticks. Using Marquette’s protocols, couples use the monitor to determine when best to conceive a child or abstain in order to postpone pregnancy for just reasons.
A University of Iowa study published in 2009 noted that while 1%-3% of women in the U.S. use fertility-awareness methods to postpone pregnancy, that number could jump to 1 in 5 women if they were informed about these methods. The study found most people learned them through faith-based groups, particularly Catholic ones, some through hospitals, and very few through medical providers.
Dr. Joseph Stanford, professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Preventive Medicine and president of Intermountain FertilityCare Services, told the Register that if Paul VI had not held the line on Humanae Vitae, natural family planning would be practically nonexistent today, with far fewer advances in natural fertility care. He encourages medical practitioners to offer it to patients.
Richard Fehring, director of Marquette University’s Institute for Natural Family Planning, pointed out that Paul VI’s direct predecessor, Pius XII, had followed up Pius XI’s teaching in Casti Connubii by encouraging medical personnel and scientists to develop and promote NFP and the moral reasons for its use. Papal encouragement fostered researchers to build on previous studies, such as the calendar and temperature-only methods, resulting in the Billings Ovulation Method, Creighton FertilityCare Model (developed in the 1970s), Marquette Method and Sympto-Thermal Method. Fehring said that in 1955, approximately 55% of American Catholic couples used a natural method of spacing pregnancy.
However, the papal effort to encourage NFP’s widespread development and adoption derailed at a critical juncture in the U.S. Fehring explained the U.S. bishops and clergy overall were slow to encourage natural methods of spacing children and remained “vague” on its moral permissibility after Casti Connubii.
Then a prominent Catholic physician, Dr. John Rock, and other scientists invented the contraceptive pill in the 1960s, and many Catholic medical professionals joined Rock in wrongly arguing it was compatible with Catholic teaching.
The 1967 leak of the papal birth-control commission’s majority report in favor of allowing artificial birth control bolstered their erroneous conviction that contraception was a moral choice for married couples.
Yet Paul VI’s confirmation of Christianity’s long-standing teaching on the immorality of contraception and his allowance of natural means of spacing births for just reasons in Humanae Vitae meant the Church would encourage scientists to work on natural methods of family planning instead of abandoning the research field for artificial methods. And now, technology, the internet and millions of dollars in private investment are exposing the natural means to a wider audience.
As smartphone ownership expands in developing countries, even more women will be able to download an app through a satellite connection to have an effective form of NFP.
Fehring pointed out that Georgetown University is conducting a study into one such app called “Dot” (Dynamic Optimal Timing), with a complex algorithm, based on published studies, that predicts fertile and non-fertile days based on the lengths of an individual woman’s cycle. “Millions of these ‘Dots’ have been downloaded now by women all around the world,” he said.
St. John Paul II carried forward Paul VI’s teaching, fleshing out the theology of marriage and family with his “theology of the body” catechesis. Theresa Notare, assistant director of the Natural Family Planning Program at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said St. John Paul II was truly instrumental in providing the local Church a theological framework to propose NFP to couples. Notare said that whenever dioceses have people talk about NFP, before going into the methods, “They need to start with Church teaching and give a substantial treatment of the gifts God has given men and women.”
Notare said this kind of education needs to come way before Catholic men and women approach the Church for marriage formation — preferably starting around the time youth hit puberty, as part of chastity education. Notare said teenagers need to know that natural family planning involves methods that respect God’s plan for life-giving love in marriage and that these methods can be learned when they are preparing for marriage.
Young women, Notare said, would benefit from fertility-awareness education as part of chastity education, because teaching them how to chart their fertility can provide them with important indications about their health. Shannon Whitmore, who is the outgoing director of religious education at St. Ignatius Church (Chapel Point) in Port Tobacco, Maryland, noted that many of the couples she has helped prepare for marriage were already cohabiting, sexually active and using contraception.
Presenting the Church’s vision for marriage, Whitmore explained, and providing them a balanced presentation about the potential positives and negatives of NFP, encourages them to adhere to Church teaching. Giving couples a support system, and awareness of a wide variety of methods, in addition, can help prevent them from feeling isolated and discouraged when an NFP method does not work for them.
Whitmore said more couples she knows are responding to modern NFP methods and technology to help them exercise their vocation to responsible parenthood — both to delay pregnancy, when they have serious reasons, and to help them bring another gift of God into the world. “It gave me piece of mind as I recovered from the birth of our first child,” Whitmore said, “and definitely helped when we were trying to get pregnant the second time to know when that best window was.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a
Register staff writer.
This story was updated online July 24, 2018, after posting.
Editor’s note: The following information about Church teaching on NFP ran as a sidebar in the July 22, 2018, print issue.
Natural Family Planning: Serious Motives
“If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions …” — Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, 16
“For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2368
“However, profoundly different from any contraceptive practice is the behavior of married couples, who, always remaining fundamentally open to the gift of life, live their intimacy only in the unfruitful periods, when they are led to this course by serious motives of responsible parenthood. This is true both from the anthropological and moral points of view, because it is rooted in a different conception of the person and of sexuality. The witness of couples who for years have lived in harmony with the plan of the Creator, and who, for proportionately serious reasons, licitly use the methods rightly called ‘natural,’ confirms that it is possible for spouses to live the demands of chastity and of married life with common accord and full self-giving.” — Pontifical Council for the Family, “Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life,” 2.6
Serious motives, just reasons, proportionately serious reasons: The Church teaches the necessity of just or serious motives or reasons for couples to use the infertile periods of a woman’s cycle for the purpose of spacing births. In doing so she is trying to insure that the natural methods of spacing children are used in a virtuous and loving way, i.e., unselfishly. Serious reasons mean important, or non-trivial, reasons, deriving “from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions” (Humanae Vitae, 16). Just reasons are, likewise, reasons which correspond to the truth of marriage and the situation of the couple. It is the nature of justice to correspond to the truth. Both terms, serious and just, presume there can be selfish, trivial or unjust reasons for using NFP, reasons not in keeping with the nature of marriage as a community of life and love.